A great Opinion Piece very pertinent in the lead up to WA’s shark season this year, printed in The West Australian, Thursday March 18th. Written by Marco Fraschetti, a shark diver and photographer, spear fisherman and owner of underwater photography and shark diving company Oceans Downunder….
I grew up in Fremantle. The waters from Cockburn Sound right out to the FADs off Rottnest is my backyard. I’ve dived WA’s waters all my life as a spear fisherman and photographer, from Perth all the way to the Northern territory border. I’ve seen my share of sharks. And I can tell you the sharks have always been out there.
For me it was an encounter with a shark off Perth that changed me forever.
No warm and fuzzy shark love, just a moment of fear that passed and left me with the stark reality that everything I’d ever been told about sharks was simply not true. It was late one Rottnest afternoon. I was recovering a freshly shot fish when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was my worst nightmare, a 3 meters plus animal that I would then have called a monster. All I could think was that my number was up. But instead I held out my fish. The shark ate it, returned for a quick pass and was gone never to be seen again, but never forgotten.
Something wasn’t right from the stories I’d heard. Wasn’t this animal meant to eat me, attack the boat, follow us to shore? The animal I’d just encountered was not the animal portrayed in those stories. The idea of scary shark died for me that day. I started my journey of travelling the world to dive with and photograph sharks.
As shark season approaches again in Perth we can expect the usual round of fear driven attacks on these poorly understood predators, from the opinion columns to the pub. But before that starts I want to encourage a better way. From my experience I believe that understanding sharks, and putting facts before fear, is the key to keeping both us and the sharks safe.
When I was younger I remember my friends dads would come back from fishing from time to time and they’d say they’d seen a shark and I’d ask what shark it was. They’d always say, ‘don’t know bloody big though’ and it’d end there. It’s not suprising, given that fishermen tend to target the same feeding and breeding aggregations of fish that sharks do. Where there are lots of fish, there will be more fishermen and more sharks.
These days though, the very mention of the word shark and it goes on about ten different social media websites and gets reported to the big cues of boaties back at the ramp. And if you own a Go-Pro or a smart phone you might even make the TV news. You get all sorts of interviews and you become a hero for surviving an encounter with a fearsome beast. This is not a system that results in the accurate reporting of information to researchers and scientists. It’s not surprising people are starting to perceive an increase in shark numbers despite scientists saying it’s not even biologically possible.
It is amazing that an animal like the white shark that has suffered so much, being killed in tens of thousands for commercial gain and personal glory, to the point where it made the endangered list, can be seen as breeding like cane toads in the waters off Rottnest. I think we’ve become a victim of our own story, we’ve simply forgotten the truth. And as the whole world moves to create more protection for sharks, we are talking about winding it back.
However, rather than going back to the 1950’s as some are now calling for and exploiting sharks for trinkets like their teeth, or tasteless additives to chicken flavored shark fin soup, we need to protect and understand sharks for the vital role they play in our ocean ecosystems. We must remember that every fish we catch or eat is there because the oceans are kept healthy by sharks.
Since my shark encounter at Rotto, I’ve spent countless hours underwater with sharks. In that time I’ve been learning and observing without the hype, and with a willingness to understand. The animal I’ve come to know is not the animal that I hear about at the pub, or in the media.
I hope over the coming months and years we can all go on that journey. I will never deny the small risk and sometimes tragic consequences of shark attacks, but these are very rare events and far from the whole truth about sharks. The more we understand sharks, the more we can avoid that very rare moment of tragedy and come to respect and appreciate them for what they are, an essential part of the ocean ecosystem we all love and enjoy. Understanding is a better way that will keep both sharks and people safe.